Prisoners of the Past


Midway through the week, the JVC Jazz Festival kicked into life at a sedate homage to Charlie Parker’s romance with strings, when the featured soloist, James Moody, bounded into an exultant “Cherokee,” shaking off the ensemble like a great swan beating the wet from its wings. He soared, dove, and crested. The rhythm section floated him on the song’s hammered harmonies, inspiring him on his tear while the resting chamber players glazed over with wonder. When he finally looped the last loop into a mocking shave-and-a-haircut finish, the crowd levitated. We talk about bop as though every postwar jazzman who plays changes with a beat enjoys equal access to its mysteries, but in fact few can essay the music’s curvy melodic purity and drive of 50 years ago, when it was mint, daring, and not a little unbelievable. Though Moody was one of the first to augment and even parody that style, he never lost the knack— he just doesn’t go for broke with it that often.

Moody was also one of the first to record with strings, two years after Parker; the subject in 1951 was “Cherokee” and he didn’t do much with the piece that Parker had made his personal anthem. When Moody finally put his mark on the song in the 1960s, he adapted it as a virtuoso flute vehicle. So those who heard his “Cherokee” on alto last week will likely remember it, as there is no equivalent on records. And if you plodded through the whole festival, which was consumed by the past, you could not help but mark the distinction between art under glass and art under the gun. Stringing along with the Classical Heritage Ensemble, Moody was a choirboy— underrehearsed, tentative, and polite to a fault. Marking his own time— on quartet spin-offs of “Lover Man” and “Parker’s Mood,” too— he was a 74-year-old terror.

The Parker-with-strings concert embodied everything about JVC that is worthy and everything that ought to be a lot better. On the surface, it was quixotically generous, an attempt to revisit Parker’s most controversial venture. The execution, however, was fatally halfhearted. The Ensemble, directed by Kermit Moore and bolstered by an enthusiastic Mike LeDonne rhythm section and James Fiorello’s oboe, knew the notes better than the tempos, which were lackluster, while the unprepared soloist was inhibited by the complicated entrances and exits, missing a cue on “April in Paris” (LeDonne smartly filled the vacuum). Worse, the numbers were poorly chosen; four were genteel Jimmy Carroll arrangements from the first Parker strings session, the fifth an overwritten “I’ll Remember April” by Joe Lippman, whose work Parker preferred. Not that more Lippman would have improved things. The opportunity lost here was to do something far more innovative: resurrect the superior pieces for strings that Parker commissioned from George Russell, Jimmy Mundy, and Gerry Mulligan, but never formally recorded, and secure the proper rehearsal time. A record company might have— should have, I mean—
assumed the additional costs.

Jazz lovers have long since grown inured to close-enough approximations of ideas that look good on paper and falter in performance. But how much collective shrugging is permissible when jazz repertory assumes almost total dominance, as if it were no longer an option, but an oppressive movement: from swing to bop to post-historical reclamations? Everyone from Cassandra Wilson and Ken Peplowski to Geri Allen and Branford Marsalis had history on the brain, some of it fairly recent, and so did audiences who like nothing better than to hear what they’ve heard before. The 1999 JVC Jazz Festival was George Wein’s 45th as a producer and my 31st as an attendee, and I can’t recall a stranger one. It was not awful (as some were)— just gray, overcast, nostalgic yet unreflective.

There were moments. There are always moments. But for reasons I suspect not even Wein can explain, a festival assumes a character, a sum total of its parts, and this one— at least the part that was played out in the major halls— struck a tired note of surrender, to what I’m not sure. Between Bell Atlantic and JVC, between new music and old, a gaping hole opened that was once filled by the mainstream, the jazz lingua franca that everyone used to know. I should have caught the Joshua Redman and Diana Krall concert, which by all reports answered that need for twentysomethings (as the competing Dave Holland and Brad Mehldau didn’t quite manage for me). Mired in the past, the festival made me feel like a frequent visitor to a museum that never changes its paintings.

Miles Davis is dead eight years, and he figured, directly or not, in three concerts. Cassandra Wilson performed selections from her Miles tribute album with a sextet directed by her bassist, Lonnie Plaxico. In a welcome change of attitude, she played to the audience, which responded gratefully, but moments of genuine intensity— a compelling “Blue in Green”— were few. The ensemble’s soft rhythmic scrim was one palm tree too many. An absence of edgy four-beat swing and colorful harmonies enervated pieces in which her throbbing chants provided the sole signs of emotion. A steady diet of scalar improvisations in eight, tarted up with atmospheric percussion, will definitely take off weight. Shirley Horn, who was also scheduled to muse over Miles, elected not to, except maybe for “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” and she was superbly poised in vignettes she made of signature Billie and Peggy songs— “Foolin’ Myself,” “How Am I to Know,” “Fever.” But she, too, was resolute about avoiding an adrenaline rush or even a wakeup call.

A steadier intensity pervaded “Kind of Blue at 40.” It began anxiously if fittingly with “Milestones” and “On Green Dolphin Street,” which offered little justification for another retread of Miles beyond Vincent Herring’s boisterous alto and Geri Allen’s robust chords. Yet the set devoted to Kind of Blue itself managed, at its best, to produce something like suspense. We know the record so well we forget the original challenges imposed by the pithy choruses of “Blue in Green” or the amorphous form of “Flamenco Sketches.” Instead of blindly following decisions made by Davis and company, Allen, Herring, Wallace Roney, and Ravi Coltrane tiptoed through those minefields, focused by brevity, and recovered a measure of spontaneity. Roney inevitably suggested Miles (he stuck with that D-minor scale on “So What”), Herring attacked with an openness redolent of Cannonball, and Allen nodded toward Wynton Kelly on “Freddie Freeloader.” Yet the immediacy of the task kept them on point. Ravi Coltrane scrupulously avoided his father’s ghost and jubilantly waltzed through “All Blues,” the one piece with a real sextet head on it. Jimmy Cobb, who played on the original, interlocked with Buster Williams, who took liberties with “So What,” but firmly grounded “Blue in Green.” The six players fulfilled a primary tenet of jazz rep: they made a sacred text human without diminishing it.

Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock recalled Miles only because they cannot avoid doing so. Those who knew their duet album, 1+1, were less disappointed than those who expected the Miles Davis Quintet of 1965 minus three. And even they were given the unexpected bonus of a closing “Footprints”— just the melody, not the blues grid. Shorter produced the most apposite quote of the festival when he interpolated a reference to “Rockabye Baby,” though it was appreciated only by those not already asleep. Actually, he played quite well, his flat broadsword of a sound on soprano rolling over Hancock’s progressive— le mot juste— chords, particularly on his haunting “Aung San Suu Kyi.” But like Horn, the twosome knew but one tempo, which like Wilson didn’t exactly canter. Still, it was preferable to a closing set by Roy Hargrove’s quintet that sounded like a rejected 1958 hard bop album. Only pianist Larry Willis seemed attentive— maybe “Rockabye Baby” did more damage than we thought.

And so it went. Ken Peplowski had taken his Benny Goodman band on tour, so lack of rehearsal could not explain its by-the-numbers approach to 1930s arrangements, mostly by Fletcher Henderson. Randy Sandke and Loren Schoenberg were the liveliest soloists— they are rare among swing revivalists in sounding comfortable in their own skins— along with the leader, especially in a duet with Dick Hyman, who stepped out of the audience to press him on “Tiger Rag.” But the rhythm section was plodding and the introverted precision of the winds gave no inkling of what made people whoop when this music was new. The newest repertory was heard at a tribute to the much missed young pianist Kenny Kirkland, feted in an ambitious evening by Branford Marsalis, with cameos by Sting and Harry Connick and redundant filmed interviews that recalled him as a likable and gifted musician. Yet the audience was given little incentive to follow up, as none of his compositions was identified— and the film editor would have done Marsalis a favor by clipping his remark about Dizzy Gillespie (unlike Kirkland) not being “literate” in Afro-Cuban rhythms. In jazz repertory begin responsibilities. But then, even James Brown appeared uncertain of what he was conserving as he preached more than he sang, introduced Al Sharpton while praising Giuliani, and gave a third of his set to one Tommie Raye, whose intonation would have been ambiguous even if she hadn’t been trying to sing while shaking her blond tresses from side to side.

I close with another near miss. After playing routinely (except for an unaccompanied revival of “Thank You”) with his longstanding quartet, the indefatigable Dave Brubeck began his second set with James Moody, who opened on tenor with a “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” that shimmered with warmth and seemed to shave 30 years off Brubeck, most of whose best music was achieved in company with saxophonists of Moody’s stature. The next number, however, was given to Moody’s admittedly funny yodeling vocal on the World War II parody “Benny’s From Heaven.” Then the usual Brubeckians returned. Moody salvaged “Blue Rondo” and “Take Five,” yet more important he intimated a genuine chemistry with old Dave, and you couldn’t help but wonder how far they might have traveled in the course of an entire burlesque-free hour. Maybe they can do that on a record. But how far have we come when we look to records to fulfill the promise of dashed concerts?